The Female Trailblazers of the Coast Guard
[By William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian]
Don’t be a Spare; be a SPAR. Release a fighting Coast Guardsman for combat; train at the Palm Beach Biltmore; wear clothes designed by Mainbocher. Apply nearest Coast Guard office.
— U.S. Coast Guard SPAR Recruiting Poster
In December 1941, the United States was plunged into the conflict. A year later, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a law creating the Women’s Reserve branch of the Coast Guard and the service began recruiting women for the SPARs - an acronym for the Coast Guard's motto, Semper Paratus–“Always Ready.”
For the war effort, the Coast Guard estimated it would need 8,000 enlisted women and 400 female officers. However, thousands more would volunteer to serve. At first, it was assumed that women had few useful skills other than typing or telephone switchboard skills. However, a former policewoman demonstrated in boot camp that she knew how to shoot, while a former professional photographer demonstrated her skills and became a photographer’s mate. SPARs proved they could serve in virtually the same ratings as men and, by war’s end, they held 43 ratings from boatswain’s mate to yeoman.
Capt. Dorothy Stratton, a member of the faculty at Purdue University, became head of the SPARs during World War II
Unlike the men, who were assigned specialties when they enlisted, enlisted SPARS were initially given the rating of seaman 2/c. All SPAR recruits had to be at least 59 inches tall and weigh at least 95 pounds and they had to distinguish whispered words at a distance of 15 feet. Women joining the enlisted ranks had to be 20 to 36 years of age and hold a high school diploma, while those wishing to enter the officer corps had to be 20 to 50 years old and have at least two years of college experience. In addition, a SPAR who became pregnant during her tour had to “submit her resignation promptly” and no SPAR could issue orders to a male service member.
The former Dean of Women at Purdue University, Dorothy Stratton, became director of the SPARs. Stratton oversaw policies for the procurement, training, utilization, and morale of the SPARs. Through her understanding of women’s abilities, her vision of jobs they could perform, and her ability to fit women into a military organization, Stratton directed the efforts of the SPARs into areas of greatest usefulness to the service and the nation. Stratton not only made substantial contributions to the war effort, she was the first woman to reach a senior officer position in the service. After the war, Stratton became Director of Personnel for the International Monetary Fund and then executive director for the Girl Scouts of America.
Group photograph of SPAR officers during World War II
The largest single employer of SPARs was Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. As the war progressed, SPARs and female civilian employees performed more of the clerical work. In June 1943, the Coast Guard became the first military service to train women at a military academy when a class of 50 SPAR officer candidates reported for training. SPARs were the first women to serve as uniformed officers in the Coast Guard.
In February 1945, Olivia Hooker was sworn into the service, becoming the first African-American woman to don a Coast Guard uniform. Hooker tried to join the U.S. Navy’s WAVES, but was rejected due to her race. Next, she applied to the Coast Guard, where she completed her basic training in March 1945. She attended yeoman school for next nine weeks and spent the rest of her service time in Boston. Hooker was one of five African-American women to become a SPAR. Many other minority women, such as Cuban-American Mary Rivero and Filipino-American Florence Finch Smith, joined the SPARs becoming the first minority women to serve in uniform.
Olivia Hooker joined the SPARs and became the first African American woman to wear a Coast Guard uniform.
By the war’s end, nearly 12,000 SPARs had served in the Coast Guard. However, in mid-1946, women’s reserve branches of all military agencies were disbanded and the SPARs officially ceased to exist. Even so, some SPARs remained on active duty to complete projects and others managed to remain in the Reserve ranks. During the Korean conflict, from 1950 to 1953, the Coast Guard made no systematic effort to mobilize former SPARs. However, about 200 women volunteered for active duty and served the duration of the conflict. By 1956, the Coast Guard had only 12 female officers and nine enlisted women on its rolls.
During World War II, SPARs pioneered the role of their gender in the service, the federal government and the nation as a whole. Since then, they have helped shape the U.S. Coast Guard into a better institution for all men and women and they will play an even greater role in shaping the service in the 21st century.
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.